That's the elephant in the living room I mostly ignored in a recent podcast (available at http://www.newvoices.info/audio/mm/ed144.wma) regarding President Obama's speech of April 15, in which he sketched the future of American space travel in broad strokes.
I like Obama, but I don't like this idea.
It would be one thing if Obama were postponing a return to the moon in order to save money. But that's not his reasoning. He made it a point to inform anxious NASA workers that he plans to increase NASA spending by $6 billion over the next five years.
Bush's program would have remedied that, with heavy launch rockets, new moon ships, and a long range plan to go to Mars and beyond. In scuttling the notion of returning us to the moon, Obama uttered only 16 words of explanation: "We've been there before. Buzz has been there. There's a lot more of space to explore." Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are split on this. Aldrin advocates for Mars, but I'm with Armstrong. We should return to the moon, and use what we find and learn there to get to Mars.
Obama said he'd launch astronauts to visit asteroids and then set our sites on Mars, predicting an orbit of the red planet by the mid 2030s. But Obama's remarks don't cohere. He owes us his reasoning. Been there, done that". just isn't enough given all the spending Obama's planning, because there are lots of good reasons intelligent folks have articulated over the years for establishing outposts on the moon.
First, the moon is a natural space station. True, it's about 100 times farther away than space shuttles have flown on their many make-work missions. But, at about 250,000 miles distant, the moon is 200 times closer to us than Mars, on average, which is some 50 million miles away, depending on the year. It took Apollo astronauts about three days to reach the moon from Earth orbit. It would take many months for astronauts to reach Mars. So, getting to the moon is relatively easy. Launching and servicing deep space missions from there would save lofting lots of materials from Earth's deep gravity well and through our dense atmosphere.
Second, NASA recently discovered many cubic meters of water in the form of ice, on the moon, something that should simplify efforts to build a future base or colony there, make rocket fuel and much else. As for polluting the moon, there's no life there to pollute. No free-flowing water, no air.
Third, the moon is the size of North and South America combined. It contains many materials that could one day be used to build space vehicles at a savings of trillions. What else it holds we don't know.
Fourth, it could help make us energy independent. That's because the moon is covered in a substance called Helium 3, which, it turns out, could be a perfect sort of fuel for future fusion reactors--the only kind of reactors I'd ever support, because they produce no radioactive byproducts to speak of. True, fusion technology has a long ways to go before it becomes practical, but why put such a natural fuel out of reach?
Fifth, returning us to the moon would render us competitive with China, the European Union, Japan and others who plan to go there.
Seventh, going back could energize privately funded efforts to encourage the human race's expansion into space. Hawking and many others have noted that remaining on Earth forever is a death sentence for the human race. Sooner or later a meteor will strike, or nukes will fire off, the sun will evolve, and humanity perish.
At this point, arguments spin toward deep philosophical outposts, and Obama owes us a mental trip there. Had he based his decision not to return us to Luna on deep philosophical thinking, I'd have been impressed.